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Social Insurance in a Time of Pandemic

Il coronavirus minaccia la vita economica mondiale toccando moltissimi settori. Ma il governo può alleviare – agendo come compratore di ultima istanza – le difficoltà economiche durante l’epidemia ed evitare che la perdita di produzione diretta provochi danni duraturi e irreparabili. Da “Dollars&Sense”.

The coronavirus threatens the world’s economic life. Social distancing measures, essential to fight the epidemic, are sharply reducing demand in sectors such as transportation, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment. Other industries will have difficulties producing due to supply disruptions (employees unable to come to work; outbreaks closing down firms). This direct output loss is expected to be short, probably a few months. Although the government cannot undo this direct output loss, it can alleviate economic hardship during the epidemic and prevent the direct output loss from causing lasting damage to the economy.

Absent government actions, the direct output loss will create large losses for businesses and may lead to mass layoffs. Many businesses and workers do not have enough liquidity to weather dramatic shortfalls in demand. The risk is to see many businesses liquidate, severely affecting workers’ families. The death of a business has long-term costs: the links between entrepreneurs, workers, and customers are destroyed and often need to be rebuilt from scratch; laid off workers need to find new jobs. Keeping businesses alive through this crisis and making sure workers continue to receive their paychecks is essential—even for businesses and workers that have to remain idle due to social distancing.

Providing liquidity—in the form of interest-free loans, for example—can help businesses and laid off workers weather the storm, but this policy is insufficient. Loans do not compensate businesses and workers for their losses; loans just allow them to smooth costs over a longer time horizon. In the case of the coronavirus crisis, however, it makes sense for the government to compensate businesses and workers for their losses so that each business can re-emerge almost intact after the hibernation due to social distancing ends.

In the context of this pandemic, we need a new form of social insurance, one that directly targets and works through businesses. The most direct way to provide this insurance is to have the government act as a buyer of last resort. If the government fully replaces the demand that evaporates, each business can keep paying its workers and maintain its capital stock, as if it was operating under business as usual. To see how the notion of a buyer of last resort works, take the case of the airline industry. If demand drops by 80%, the government would compensate this missing demand, in effect buying 80% of plane tickets and maintaining sales constant. This would allow airlines to keep paying their workers and maintain their planes and equipment without risking bankruptcy.

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